The Ransom of Red Chief (1986)

Comic Opera in One Act
Libretto (English) by Daniel Dibbern, based on the story by O. Henry

Duration: 55 minutes
Cast:  Tenor, Basso buffo, (boy) Soprano, Baritone, offstage chorus SATB
Reduced instrumentation ( [opt. perc]) available
Piano reduction available

Commissioned by the City of Mesquite, Texas
and the National Endowment for the Arts


…The ultimate “outreach” function does
not, fortunately, imply any writing down to the audience…Rodríguez produced a score that, on first hearing, was both sophisticated and accessible.  The orchestration for chamber ensemble was unfailingly lucid and colorful; ditto for the vocal writing.

              Wayne Lee Gay,
              Musical America

…enough to convince the most doting grandparent that W.C. Fields was right about children…brims over with tuneful, catchy music, much of it with a strong folk flavor…He also employs sophisticated and difficult music, but it is so slyly and effectively used (mostly in the orchestra) that no one leaves the hall thinking negative thoughts about modern music.
Olin Chism, Dallas Times Herald

…an exciting, funny, and memorable work for school groups and similar new audiences.  It is big enough to deserve full mainstage treatment, yet small and flexible enough to tour.
Mark Lynch, Opera for Youth

Program Note:

The libretto for The Ransom of Red Chief adheres closely to the original O. Henry story, the only changes being in the locale – from Summit, Alabama (which actually exists) to Summit, Texas (which does not) – and in the mention, in the final scene, of “The Great Mesquite Train Robbery,” an actual event in the history of the commissioning city.

The musical language of the opera is colorful and varied:  opening with a twelve-note row, closing with a Bach-style double fugue and containing liberal doses of Bluegrass, Dixieland and ragtime.  The turn-of-the-century rural Texas setting is established through the use of such folk instruments as banjo, harmonica and accordion as well as through the quotation of three popular American tunes of the day:  the Lucy Long Quickstep, which is developed extensively throughout the opera, as well as the hymn, “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” and the folk song, “Hell in Texas,” which was also used by the composer in his earlier cantata, Varmi’ts! (1986).  Additional quotations include fragments from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi Monteverdi’s Orfeo and the medieval Play of Herod.  All are fused into the composer’s characteristic “richly lyrical atonality” (Musical America), in a style “romantically dramatic” (Washington Post) and full of the composer’s “all-encompassing sense of humor” (Los Angeles Times). 


Sam and his partner Bill, two Yankee con men, kidnap the son of a small-town banker, hoping to hold him for ransom.  The boy is more than a match for these two, and they quickly realize they have their hands full.  Johnny talks incessantly, asking thousands of questions and obviously having a wonderful time.  As the men write the ransom note, Johnny stages a mock attack as the Indian warrior “Rod Chief.’  After “Red Chief” inflicts further terrors and humiliations on Sam and Bill, they agree to pay his father money just to take him back.